Sunday Apr 26, 2009


The image below is an advertisement for an English school here in Japan. I shot it on a train a few weeks ago in Tokyo. I was struck by the piercing, obnoxious, pompous looks from those western dudes staring at, presumably, a Japanese person in some mythical meeting someplace. Nothing like scaring the hell out of someone to prompt them to take a class, eh? My goodness. Look at those guys.

Anyway, the text actually expresses an important concept, and it goes something like this: when you don`t agree with something while talking to these guys, you`ll be asked why you don`t agree, you`ll be expected to state your opinion, and, probably, you`ll have to defend that opinion. So, if that dynamic is a problem, many people just say yes and go along with the crowd in the meeting. I know many Japanese people do this in international meetings because expressing contrary opinions is done quite differently in English and Japanese. Westerners (Americans specifically) tend to be direct and Japanese tend to be indirect. But it goes beyond preference. Those styles are hard coded right into the structures of the languages themselves, and they are expressed in the cultures as well. There are exceptions both ways, of course, but the tendencies are pervasive and obvious, and a great deal of confusion can occur as a result. When communicating across languages, go out of your way to make sure your ideas resonate in the other language. Many times, they don`t. And you`ll miss that rather inconvenient fact if the other person is just saying yes. Yes doesn`t always mean yes, right? And there are a hundred different ways of saying no, right?

But here`s the kicker for me: this issue is also a problem within English; it`s not just a problem when communicating across English and Japanese. Many times native English speakers just say yes when confronted with aggressive people like the dudes in the image below. I mean, really, why would anyone want to talk to these guys? Especially outnumbered four on one. I think there are probably just as many communication problems stemming from command and control types within a language as there are resulting from distinctions in communication styles across languages. What always gets me, though, is why do these guys have meetings in the first place? They obviously don`t want other opinions. So, they deserve the yes they get -- and the problems resulting from that yes.

This is why it`s a pleasure working on teams that value open communication, and working for leaders who use communication to discover ideas and implement ideas. Human communication is an imperfect art. You have to use it as a tool to iterate so understanding emerges over time. Teams that don`t value this painfully simple concept aren`t worth your time no matter what language you speak.

Wednesday Sep 03, 2008


Fascinating little article about the English word "I" -- On Language: Me, Myself and I -- by Caroline Winter in the New York Times. Really good read.

I didn't know where the capital "I" came from. I'm not surprised by the answer, though. The article says, in part, that the single letter, lower case "i" was just not hefty enough to stand on it's own and carry the significance of what "I" truly represents in English. So, scribes made it bigger. And it became a capital letter. Great story. And it seems reasonable given the evolution and structure of the English language.

The article goes beyond that, though. Winter suggests that capitalizing the first-person pronoun "I" may lead to excessive ego, and she cites examples of other languages that don't capitalize I. She also says that some languages, such as Japanese, make it possible to leave out pronouns altogether. Well, sure, but you don't really need subjects in Japanese, either. And in Japanese the emphasis is on the "topic" of the sentence, not the subject. Also, Japanese verbs are usually passive and/or nominalized and buried at the end of sentences well after all the context is explained in painfully long detail. But in English, a centralized subject performing an action is the focus right up front. And while English can structurally handle a "topic" it has no grammatical role and is generally left out -- just as Japanese leaves out subjects and pronouns and whatever else.

I'm not sure about the other languages Winter cites, but Japanese and English seem polar opposites to me. I also don't see how comparing the languages supports the argument that using "i" instead of "I" can make "our individualistic, workaholic society ... more rooted in community and quality and less focused on money and success if we each thought of ourselves as a small “i” with a sweet little dot." Japanese has a lot of what Winter is looking for, yet many Japanese people are workaholics, many express a lot of individuality (though not as much as the US), many are focused on money, and much of their famous humility/politeness is locked inside a rather rigid group structure with rules that would greatly stress the Western definition of community. Of course, many Japanese people are lovely and kind and genuinely community-oriented and all that, just as many English-speaking people are as well. It's extremely difficult to judge languages/cultures out of their context. Definitions of "community" and "individual" are expressed, perceived, and internalized very differently in the East and West.

Interesting article, but I think it goes a tad too far. I don't see why the capital I can't just be a quirk of linguistic history rather than a statement on individual ego -- and a pejorative one at that. Actually, I'd go further. I think it's perfectly fine to express "I" as a capital letter to reflect the centrality of a person articulating a perspective. That's how English is structured, and it makes sense in the context of that language. It may not make sense in another language, sure, but does that make it bad?

Sunday Jun 08, 2008

English Required

Every time I read an article about how Japan wants to make Tokyo competitive as global financial center, the issue of the obvious lack of English language skills here comes up. Every time. Here it is again -- Japan increases push for Tokyo as finance centre. I doubt China will make this mistake. China's economy is emerging now during a time of globalization, whereas Japan's emerged prior to globalization.

Thursday May 01, 2008

Crazy English in China

Fascinating piece about this guy Li Yang teaching "Crazy English" to huge crowds of people in China. His technique is rather unique, but I can see how it may have significant benefits for anyone learning another language as an adult. The larger language issue in China, though, is illustrated by this utterly amazing quote from the article: "Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States." Just think about that. Just think about how that changes things in the future with language barriers beginning to melt away and what means for global communications and global economics. Also, Ampontan has a detailed analysis of the article that's well worth reading and adds some interesting context from Japan.

Saturday Dec 29, 2007

The Samurai and the Cowboy

I'm reading a really interesting linguistics book on how the Japanese communicate and think and how their language differs from the English spoken by Americans -- Japanese Communication: Language and Thought in Context. It's very much a Venus and Mars sort of thing since the two cultures and languages are so different. Instead of planets, though, the author uses the cultural myths of the samurai and the cowboy to juxtapose the two. It's a miracle any information survives this barrier. But it's fascinating to peel back the layers to figure out why. More on this when I'm done.


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